Papers of William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs (1824-1907), Professor of Natural Philosophy in the University of Glasgow, Scotland

Scope and Content

Letters and papers of William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907). The correspondents in these letters include some of the leading scientists and physicists of the time such as George Boole, Fleeming Jenkin, J P Joule, James Clerk Maxwell, P G Tait and C J Varley. They discuss research projects by Kelvin and the Department of Natural Philosophy in the University of Glasgow as well as more general academic and family matters. The collection includes 5 letter-books, photographs and press cuttings. It is augmented by later documents relating to Kelvin and the Department of Natural Philosophy.

Administrative / Biographical History

A scientist and inventor, Lord Kelvin was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1824, the second son of James Thomson (1786-1849) a professor of Mathematics in the Royal Institution there. The family moved to Glasgow, Scotland, in 1832. He matriculated at the University of Glasgow in 1834 and went on to Peterhouse, Cambridge where he helped to found Cambridge University Musical Society.

As a Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow (1846-1899), he gathered around him enthusiastic students of mathematical physics and devoted himself to developing the new doctrine propounded by Sadie Carnot in 1824 and by James Prescott Joule in 1847 that work and heat were convertible. Between 1851 and 1854 he formulated the two great laws of thermodynamics - of equivalence and of transformation - in communications to the Royal Society of Edinburgh and subsequently rounded off his work on thermodynamics by enunciating the doctrine of available energy.

He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1851 and was its president 1890-1895. He married his second cousin Margaret Crum in 1852, she died in 1870.

Throughout his life he sought to utilise science for practical ends. In 1853, through mathematical analysis, he developed the theory of electrical oscillations which forms the basis of wireless telegraphy. The following year he carried out experiments on electrical telegraph cables and propounded the 'law of squares'. In 1856 he became the director of, and served as a electrician on, the 'Agamemnon' which laid the first cable across the Atlantic. The experiment failed due to a colleague's neglect of Thomson's councils although Thomson triumphantly redeemed the failure by superintending the laying of a new cable in 1866. He was knighted in 1866 for his services to telegraphy and became president of the Society of Telegraph Engineers in 1874.

He went on to study atmospheric electricity and improved the system of electrical measurement and the adoption of rational units. An advocator of the metric system, Thomson also suggested the formulation of a commission for electrical standards.

Further study involved the mathematical theory of magnetism, a 'Treatise on Natural Philosophy' with Peter Guthrie Tait, and contributions to the theory of elasticity in a paper on 'Vortex Atoms' (Edinburgh, 1867). He married again in 1874 to Frances Anna Blandy and built a mansion at Netherhall near Largs, North Ayrshire, Scotland.

Kelvin continued to invent, working on reforming the mariner's compass 1873-8, devising apparatus for taking flying soundings in 1872, and inventing a tide-predicting machine. During his presidency of the physical and mathematical section at York in 1881 he showed the possibility of utilising the power of Niagara Falls in generating electricity.

His interest in electricity and electric lighting lead him to become a founder of Kelvin & White Ltd, Glasgow, who manufactured his own inventions.

In 1902 he was appointed to the Privy Council; 2 years later he was created Chancellor of the University of Glasgow. An ardent Unionist in politics, he also carried a strong religious faith throughout his life. He died in December 1907 and is buried in Westminster Abbey, London.


The material is arranged in the following series:

  • Printed Books;
  • Correspondence (arranged alphabetically by the surname of the sender), 1824-1927;
  • Appendix, 1859-1969;
  • Letterbooks, 1880-1899;
  • Photographs

Access Information

Access is open, however an appointment may be required. Please email Archives and Special Collections for advice:

Acquisition Information

Transfer : Department of Natural Philosophy : February 1967 : ACCN 4170

Other Finding Aids

Conditions Governing Use

Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use and condition of documents. Applications for permission to quote should be sent to Archives and Special Collections, please email:

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 247 procedures

Custodial History

Held by the Department of Natural Philosophy, University of Glasgow


Purchase : Edward Hall : ACCN 4194

Gift : William G Dun : 15 Dec 1921 : ACCN 2497

Gift : John S Roberton, 30 Jun 1933 : ACCN 715

Purchase : Gurney : Aug 1976 : ACCN 4305

Gift : John Lamb Speirs : May 1982 : ACCN 4428

Purchase : John Wilson : 9 Sep 1987 : ACCN 4766

Deposit : Hilary Smith : 29 May 1995 : ACCN 4611

Purchase : Sophie Dupré : 3 Dec 1996 : ACCN 4671

Gift : Mark Paterson : Oct 2009 : ACCN 4968

Purchase : John Wilson Manuscripts Ltd : May 2013 : ACCN 5009

Related Material

Related material in MS Kelvin Add, Thomson family papers (MS Gen 1752), Kelvin patents (MS Gen 1753), Records of Kelvin & Hughes Ltd (UGD 033).

The Library also has a collection of some 3,500 pamphlets, chiefly on scientific matters, which were presented to the University by Lord Kelvin in 1892. About 100 books from Kelvin's personal library, bequeathed to the University by his nephew, in 1926, were transferred to the Library from the Department of Physics (formerly Natural Philosophy) in 1999. For details, see Glasgow University Library Catalogue

Geographical Names